Report: Facebook’s Planned China Site Could Be Connected to Rest of World

After Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said last fall that he wanted to the launch the site in China — where it is currently blocked — reports have increasingly indicated that some sort of localized version of the site is coming soon. And today, AllThingsD’s Liz Gannes has uncovered a number of new details that highlight just how close a launch might be.

Facebook itself has only been providing vague comments on its plans. Yet because entering the country will involve cooperating with the government to censor its citizens, the company is already beginning to face public criticism from supporters of free speech. It will need to do a better job of explaining what its values are around free speech if it hopes to escape a major public relations fiasco over the decision, and it is already fallen behind on that front.

Meanwhile, it’s not even clear if the Chinese government is on board with what Facebook is planning.

In spite of these issues, Facebook is trying to move quickly to finalize a local partner, most likely Chinese search leader Baidu. Governmental censorship has become increasingly heavy-handed in China in recent years, especially as social services like Facebook have helped inspire citizens to rise up against governments in other parts of the world.

But the more pressing matter to Facebook is that domestic social networking rivals are solidifying their market positions. From the article:

Sources close to Facebook said that RenRen’s U.S. fundraising, in particular, is a significant motivator for Facebook to launch its China offering sooner rather than later.

“I would not discount the need for Facebook not to sit by and watch a significant competitor gain that much advantage,” said one person close to the situation.

RenRen has recently filed to go public in the US at a $4 billion valuation. Founded in late 2005 as a direct clone of Facebook, it successfully followed a similar strategy of expansion among students, and like Facebook has convinced users to provide real-life information about themselves rather than made-up avatars. If and when Facebook enters China, the company will have to figure out how to take on RenRen on its home turf.

Which is likely why Facebook is trying to figure out how to connect its China site (whatever that looks like) to its other up to 700 million monthly active users around the world. It is working on an interface, according to sources cited by the report, that will show non-China users a warning when they interact with users in the country, indicating that what they do “may also be visible to the Chinese government.”

Facebook already has a strong foothold in countries with close language and cultural ties to China. There are approximately 3.65 million Facebook users in Hong Kong, nearly 9 million in Taiwan, and millions more in Southeast Asia, according to our Inside Facebook Gold traffic tracking service (note that there have been odd fluctuations in these numbers over the last several months, as we’ve previously covered). Beyond the rest of its user base, these users could help Facebook establish itself in China even with entrenched domestic competitors.

Entering China the wrong way might not just be a problem for Facebook’s image outside the country, either. Chinese users seeking greater internet freedoms may be disappointed in potential Facebook compromises. And there’s the matter of how it will even manage operations if it works out a deal with a partner and gets the okay from the government. From the last line of the report: “Finally, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook is considering sending a small group of its employees to help manage operations, but sources close to the company said this issue is still being debated due to safety considerations related to China’s oppressive government.”